Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Incredible Hercules #121 Review

Writers: Greg Pak and Fred van Lente
Penciller: Clayton Henry

Greg Pak is having a lot of fun. I'm not sure how he managed it, but he took one of Marvel's lamest heroes, Hercules, and somehow managed to turn him into one of the most interesting, entertaining, goofiest, yet strangely plausible heroes that Marvel has ever written. Greg Pak is clearly fascinated with Greek myth and stories, but what is so fantastic about his take on them is that Pak realises that the stories themselves are often simply funny. There is a tendency to solemnise anything old. My wife's former choir director conducts Palestrina at about double the normal pace. His reasoning is that other conductors simply get the pace wrong; centuries of thinking of Palestrina as classic and religious have caused conductors to gradually slow down the pacing, because they think that's how anything classic or religious is supposed to sound. Greek myths and stories often suffer the same fate. Because they're about gods and are written in an old language, they are told with great solemnity as classic stories with deep insights.

Greg Pak does to Hercules what my wife's choir director does to Palestrina. He scrapes of the barnicles of solemnity and returns the story to its former, brisk pace. Hercules represents everything the archaic Greeks loved about themselves: he's a hard drinking, womanizing warrior. This story has no real plot, as many of the stories of Hercules has no plot. Instead, we see a number of Hercules', erm, feats. We hear the story of how he tricked Atlas into taking back his curse of holding up the heavens by pretending he needed to fix his cloak. The image of Atlas, holding up the stars, with the disappointed speech bubble, "Tch", is hilarious. We find out that he tricked Namora, the queen of Atlantis, into kissing him in issue #111, by pretending he was drowning. Rather than get angry, Namora of course propositions him.

All of Hercules' latest adventures are cast against the backdrop of Cho's kidnapping by the Amazons. They want him to sire the next generation of Amazons, you see, which Cho thinks is great. Of course, Hercules also thinks this is great, since he wants his companion to share in the fun. The one catch, though, is that they plan to kill him afterwards, which is somewhat less great. The amazons are dressed somewhere between Greek goddesses and go-go dancers and have rocket launchers, which all Amazons certainly would have had, if the ancient Greeks had known about rocket launchers. Hercules is unconcerned, because he's pretty sure Cho can take care of himself, but decides to rescue him anyway, more because it would probably be fun than because he is worried. And then Namor shows up, and he's mad, which makes sense, since Namor's always mad.

There's also some clever use of Greek in the book that I'm wondering if Pak didn't use it to slip some of his jokes past his editors. Apparently the Amazons stole Cho because they believe that he is Hercules' eromenos. Cho denies this vehemently, while the Amazon explains that it's "perfectly normal" and "none of her business". This is actually a rather complex joke about Greek sex. Homosexual relationships in Greece at the time were usually asymmetrical, in which one older man, the erastes, had a passive younger partner (often an adolescent), the eromenos. The eromenos, however, wasn't supposed to discuss his affair, as he isn't supposed to enjoy being passive, so Cho's denial of the affair is perfectly expected behaviour for an eromenos. Since an eromenos is supposed to deny the affair, Cho has no way of persuading the Amazon that he isn't actually Hercules' eromenos, which he finds incredibly frustrating. Pak is mixing scholarly debate about the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus with "not that there's anything wrong with that" jokes from shows like Seinfeld. It's a very clever bit of humour, and I have no idea how Pak would have gotten this past his editors unless they had no idea what an eromenos was.

The scene with Ares and the beginning is also laugh-out-loud funny. He's sitting in a diner, listening to women talk about how sexy Hercules is and how revolting Ares is. Ares, of course, hates his half-brother, and simply sits there and stews. The sight of the god of war, sitting in a diner, fuming about how sexy his brother is, is brilliant and wickedly funny. Oeming and Pak have done a great job of recreating the character of Ares in his proper glory, the god of war, and I am excited to see him back in this book. He comes across both as brilliant and ruthless, which in some contexts makes him incredibly scary and in others makes him simply hilarious. One of the best things about this scene is that it reminds us that often the gods were jealous of heroes like Hercules partly because they were so frickin' annoying. Hubris or arrogance, the tragic flaw of all heroes according to Aristotle, can sometimes simply be the result of being more attractive than one of the gods. Sometimes hubris can consist of shaking one's fist at the gods like Oilean Ajax. Other times, it can just be the result of out-sexying Ares in a winking photograph signed "Love thee, silly". Here we see an example of the latter.

Incredible Hercules #121 is a fantastic book. It has explosions and jets and a submarine and scuba gear and wrestling and multi-variable calculus and lava and a jealous king and a medusa with her snakes in a pony-tail and just about everything else that Pak can think to throw into the adventure. Somehow he manages to include all of this without ever losing control of the story or losing control of his characters. Instead the book has the same sense of amoral fun that permeated Greek myth. Gods fight. Gods get laid. Were you expecting insights?


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